Why is it that so many English words, as one traces their etymologies, run through Icelandic as one goes back?

  • 4
    Can you give an example of a word whose etymology runs through Icelandic?
    – nohat
    May 27, 2011 at 1:50
  • @nohat Wikipedia gives several: epli, bók, hár, hús, móðir, nótt, steinn, það, orð, which are all nearly identical to their English counterparts (if you are familiar with the Icelandic alphabet).
    – HaL
    May 27, 2011 at 2:26
  • 10
    I believe it is more a case of having a common Germanic root rather than 'running through' Icelandic. May 27, 2011 at 2:43
  • 5
    @HaL none of those words are English words
    – nohat
    May 27, 2011 at 5:34
  • 6
    As others have noted, there don't seem to be many English words that do derive directly from Icelandic. There are quite a few that come from a common earlier root, but that's a different question.
    – Hugo
    May 27, 2011 at 8:34

3 Answers 3


English doesn't have many words which come from Icelandic, geyser and saga are possibly the most prominent.

But English does have a good few words which share a common ancestor with Icelandic. Icelandic as the most conservative of the Scandinavian languages is relatively close to Old Norse, from which English borrowed while the vikings were in Britain. They include such seemingly native words as them, skirt, and sky.

Then, of course, English is actually related to Old Norse and Icelandic since they are all Germanic languages. This is where most of the similar words in English and Icelandic mentioned in other comments and answer really come from.

So broadly speaking there are three kinds of related words between English and Icelandic: Directly borrowed, via Old Norse, and descended from proto-Germanic.

  • 1
    And more commonplace examples would be "them", "skirt" and "sky".
    – Colin Fine
    May 27, 2011 at 15:37
  • @Colin: I tried to pick one that was still spelled the same in Icelandic and English and felt Icelandic too. Also I was too lazy to dig through lots of etymologies (-: May 28, 2011 at 3:37
  • 1
    Fine. But my point is that "saga" is a comparatively modern loan, and still feels like one ("-a" is extremely rare in native English words), whereas I was exemplifying Norse loanwords that entered the language so long ago that they are naturalised.
    – Colin Fine
    May 31, 2011 at 11:11
  • @Colin: Oh I didn't realise saga was borrowed 300 years ago - you're right. I was originally thinking about one of the pronounds/demonstratives in th- but thought I'd struck gold with saga. I'll look into it a bit more and edit my answer. Thanks! May 31, 2011 at 14:08

I think it's what I know as red car syndrome, which urban dictionary calls blue car syndrome

Either you know Icelandic, or you recently noticed one Icelandic etymology in particular, and thereafter became particularly prone to notice others.


English was heavily influenced by the old norse language, and icelandic hasn't changed much from old norse over time so it's still very close to it.

Now I don't speak icelandic, but I speak swedish, which also comes from old norse, and even between swedish and english there are a lot of similarities.

Some examples of english-icelandic words that both come from old norse: Father - Faðir (fathir, roughly..) Mother - móðir (mothir, also roughly..) House - hús Knife - hnífur (both come from the old norse word hníf) Window - vindauga (both come from old norse and literally mean 'an eye towards the wind')

So.. yeah, hope that was helpfull.

  • Of the words you list, only window is from Old Norse. The rest are all native English words. Mar 8, 2014 at 2:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.